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Journalism and the art of listening

What the powerful say about what they’re doing, or have done, or are thinking about doing, is important. The journalist’s job is to thread a narrow and tricky needle.

(Image: Adolfo Félix/Unsplash.com)

I want Pope Francis to do well.

I’ve never made a secret of how his election thrilled me. I’ve never hidden how I have felt his gestures great and small move me and challenge me to be a better Christian. Time and again, I’ve received his calls to the practice of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy as piercing clarions. His championship of the migrant and the pauper and the widow and the orphan and the downtrodden everywhere are mighty convictions of my soul.

I don’t believe he is an enemy of the faith or consciously committed to the destruction of Holy Tradition.

If I did believe it, I don’t know what difference it would make to me in the practice of my profession, primarily concerned as it is with discovering and then saying what leaders have done and explaining fairly and fully as possible why they have done what they’ve done (or sometimes what they’re thinking about doing).

All that begins with listening, carefully. “Listen!” is the theme of the 2022 World Day for Social Communications, announced last week. It’s excellent advice to anyone, especially when we don’t want to hear it – and I mean “we” when I say it – only, it is indispensable to the journalist who would do the job well.

It also raises another question: Listen to whom?

As my friend, veteran Vaticanologist Andrea Gagliarducci put it in a piece he published recently, “Listening, therefore, is a fundamental starting point, but understanding who and what to listen to is the main theme.”

He asks – with the powerful rhetorical effectiveness of one who asks pointedly and earnestly – whether we ought to listen to Cardinal Sarah (the olim prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship), or Cardinal Czerny (Pope Francis’s point man on migrants)? Archbishop Viganò (the celebrity clerical whistleblower of 2018), or Archbishop Fernandez (a papal favorite and theologian of frequent papa recourse, reputed ghostwriter of Amoris laetitia)?

“Stricken by a quasi-political mentality,” writes Gagliarducci, “religious journalism is increasingly becoming a megaphone for a polarization of positions that seem to put aside the crucial issue of faith, even when they speak about it explicitly.” Faith, he says, “appears exploited, bent to support adverse positions,” in a partisan game.

“Listening,” wrote Gagliarducci, “means freeing oneself from prejudices,” and embracing a sort of “epistemological humility” that Gagliarducci has been at some pains to explain for a good while, now. For a journalist on the Church beat, he says “it means above all starting to read events by listening to history, before people; and seeing facts, before prejudices.” Gagliarducci is not wrong.

One way out of the quagmire is for both scribblers and readers to pay attention more to what their subjects do, than to what they say. That’s not to say that what popes and prelates say is unimportant, but it does help us all keep firmly in mind that part of their threefold munus is to govern the Church, and that journalists need to be concerned with how they are doing that.

What the powerful say about what they’re doing, or have done, or are thinking about doing, is important. The journalist’s job is to thread a narrow and tricky needle: not to take their protestations at face value, while also avoiding undue suspicion.

Listening is how the journalist comes to know what questions to ask, and of whom.

The journalist’s questions are no different from those any fellow on the street would ask, if only he knew to ask them. The journalist’s task is first to know what to ask, then to ask the needful questions of the right people in the right way, and then to share the questions and the answers received. That’s it.

We try to understand the circumstances that give rise to action and elucidate how the powerful reach their decisions and apply them to circumstance. Journalists’ personal opinions really don’t come into that business very much. At least, they shouldn’t. Everyone has an opinion. The journalist’s task is to see that readers’ opinions are informed.

When journalists do share their opinions, they should be exemplary: of that circumspection, which ought to come from the disciplined cultivation of charity and justice. We are all tempted to think the best of those, with whom we agree. We are all tempted to think the worst of those, with whom we disagree.

To think all the good we can of everyone is a hard thing, especially when we want it to be a very great deal of good or have good reason to suspect it is very little, indeed. We must learn it. To practice the discovery of just how much good that is, and then to practice the art of saying it without fear or favor, is harder still.

That’s one reason why we all need to care less – or better – to care differently, about what the guys in the big hats say.


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About Christopher R. Altieri 134 Articles
Christopher R. Altieri is a journalist, editor and author of three books, including Reading the News Without Losing Your Faith (Catholic Truth Society, 2021). He is contributing editor to Catholic World Report.

13 Comments

  1. I think your remarks about listening are directed to the wrong audience. It is the Pope and his Vatican that ought to hone the practice of listening. I’ve said for a few years now that the Pope speaks too much and listens little. And when he does listen, it is to the wrong people. He’ll listen to Pelosi and soon personally to Biden but not to his Dubia Cardinals. Sorry, Chris but this will go down in history as the Failed Papacy. Why? Because the Faithful stopped listening to Francis because they were busy keeping a keen ear attuned to Christ – two very different exercises. One thing for sure Francis was right about: he told us not to call him the Vicar of Christ. I’m not sure he knows just how on the mark he was.

  2. So, actions not words and those who one chooses to have close association with are what count.
    OK, fine. My dad taught me that sixty years ago.
    Regarding the pope, these filters are particularly telling.

  3. The gospel doesn’t tell us to be “champions of the poor, the widow, the orphan,” etc.. It tells us to take care of the poor, widowed, and orphaned members of our own Christian communities (and no, Matthew 25 doesn’t teach otherwise, so save it). We are not to take sides in the class struggle. I was not “thrilled” when this pope was elected. I could see that he had a badly distorted sense of what Christianity is about, when he first stepped out onto that balcony proclaiming “a church for the poor”. This is a false gospel — the church is for everybody, or it’s not the church at all.

    • Christ told us that, yes, the poor you will have with you always. Our Catholic churches do a very poor job of targeted charity toward immediate members of the Catholic Church who are most vulnerable- widows, widows with children, the sick and the dying, those who have lost jobs, etc. What would win converts to the Catholic Church is when non-Catholics can say, “See how they take care of their own; I want to belong to such as these.” Instead, we have had 50 years of priest predators sexually abusing vulnerable members of the Catholic community- to wit, pubescent boys. Now, we have faithful Catholics leaving the Church en masse. My philosophy: charity begins at home and then extends outward. But try telling that to Catholic Charities USA or CRS.

  4. I tried very hard to listen to what Mr. Altieri is saying in this piece even after I almost gagged on the second paragraph. Perhaps he would like to apply the Holy Father’s “teachings” on migrants concretely in his own life by welcoming some Afghan male refugees of military age into his home. Other than that, I can’t figure out what in the world his point is.

  5. “I want Pope Francis to do well.” That sounds like a phrase that one would use right after he was made pope. We are now eight years later, and we know what he has done (and said). I think a reasonable analysis would say that he has not done well. His continuous emphasis on climate change, illegal immigrants, etc. make him sound more like a democrat politician than a pope. It is like saying I hope Biden does well. Too late for that.
    By reason of his office, just like a senior military officer, he deserves respect. But for his performance in that office, I would say not. I don’t see any possibility that he will go down as Pope Francis the Great.
    Your open letter to Bishop Tobin, referenced through this article, could just as easily been written to Pope Francis.
    Hs recent glad handing, jucking it up, and gift exchanging with Pelosi, a militant promotor of killing unborn babies, was cringe worthy to watch. She is not a head of state and could easily have been foisted off on a cardinal. But, she is also promotor of climate change, illegal immigrants, etc., so they seem to have a lot in common.

  6. “We are all tempted to think the best of those, with whom we agree. We are all tempted to think the worst of those, with whom we disagree.”

    Even apart from the misuse of commas imposing non-restriction on restrictive clauses, those two sentences make no sense. Who are the “we all” adverted to by Mr. Altieri? The use of the sweeping editorial “we” is itself a mark of shoddy journalism, not to say moral smugness.

    This is a very shabby piece on an astonishingly shabby topic.

    • As for the use of “we,” we (!) get some help from a quote attributed to Mark Twain: “Only monarchs, editors, and people with tapeworms have the right to use the editorial ‘we.'”

      Altieri and I are not numbered among the first two…

  7. All the deep and out-in-the-open theological conflict in the Church! This is really unbearable. It’s been going on since the Vatican II Council (60 years ago). I hope and pray that this can all be solved and resolved soon! It does so much damage to real, living people. Pretending it isn’t happening isn’t working and hoping it just goes away is never going to work.

  8. I pray daily for the Pope and respect the office. But his character lacks something. I recall the time he was out in a public crowd and a woman grabbed his arm and he turned and slapped her hand. I think that is the real Bergoglia. It has been reported the Superior General of the Jesuits said he shouldn’t be made a Cardinal but he was and then able to be a member of the consistory to vote for the Pope and behold he was elected Pope to serve the liberal Cardinals with selfish motives.Does the name Francis seem to be a rebuff to those Jesuits who were concerned about his ability to govern the whole church.

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